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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Israel: Masada!

An absolute must-do during our month in Israel in March-April (made possible by the American Friends of Ben Gurion University of the Negev) was to go to Masada. The first time I was at Masada was in 1973 with my father, and I wanted to see the new archaeological excavations and share this incredible, profound historical site with Dan.  In addition to the Israel Nature & Parks Authority website I linked above, Chabad has great website pages on Masada, as does the Jewish Virtual Library. Masada has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001; an enduring symbol of the fight for Jewish freedom, it is a famous site for IDF swearing-in ceremonies; "Masada shall not fall again" is The succinct expression of Israeli sovereignty.
Dan, going up to Masada in the new cable car

Cable car up to Masada...

Dan, at Masada

Dan, at Masada

Elisse, with frescos, Masada

The Dead Sea, from a window at Masada...

The Dead Sea, from Masada


Frescos, at Masada

Looking down, from Masada

Dan, with the model of Masada

Heated bathhouse floor, Masada

The path up to Masada

Elisse, in the Synagogue, Masada

Dovecot, Masada

Elisse, with stone ammo, Masada

Ongoing mosaic restoration, Masada

Mosaic floor, Masada

The Dead Sea, from Masada

The Dead Sea and surrounding desert, from Masada

Built by King Herod, the Roman-backed Governor of Israel, in the 1st century BCE, Masada was both an elaborate mountain top fortress with palaces, bathhouses, storerooms, and cisterns, and Herod's fairly fabulous vacation home, built 1,200+ feet above the surrounding desert and looking out over the Dead Sea.
In 66 CE, Masada became a refuge for Jewish zealots, led by Elazar ben Ya'ir, who were resisting Roman rule. Following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 69 CE, more Jews joined the group and resisted Roman efforts to dislodge them, living on food that Herod had stored, and water from the cisterns. In 72 C.E., Roman governor Flavius Silva decided to do away with this outpost of resistance once and for all, and the 15,000 people of the Roman camp, including the 10th Roman Legion and Jewish prisoners-of-war, prepared for a long siege against the 1,000 men, women, and children up on the mountain. After failing to breach the wall on the east side, they built an assault ramp against the western side, using thousands of tons of stones and earth. Using a battering ram, they broke the stone wall of the fortress. The defenders had built another wall that the Romans could not break with the battering ram because it was soft and yielding, so the Romans destroyed it with fire, and planned to enter the next day. That night, Eleazar gathered the zealots and spoke to them; they decided to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of Romans. Each man killed his wife and children, then the men drew lots and killed each other until the last man set fire to everything and killed himself. In the morning, the Romans entered the fortress and found only dead bodies. Two women and five children survived the mass suicide by hiding in a cistern, which is how the story came to be known to the historian Josephus Flavius, nee Joseph ben Matityahu. Born into a priestly family, he was a young leader at the outbreak of the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66 CE) when he was appointed governor of Galilee. Managing to survive the suicide pact of the last defenders of Jodfat, he surrendered to Vespasian (who was then proclaimed emperor); calling himself Josephus Flavius, he became a Roman citizen and a successful historian, and remains the significant source of information about Masada. Since the site of Masada was identified in 1838, discoveries and excavations have occurred regularly; Masada National Park was opened in 1966, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority continues to carry out conservation and restoration activities, as well as ongoing excavations. You can walk up the famous "snake path" to Masada or take the cable car; given the heat and our "gotta see everything!" time constraints, Dan & I took the cable car!
It was fascinating to see the ongoing archaeological and restoration work, including the extraordinary frescoes and mosaics, as well as the Roman military camps below Masada which I hadn't seen back in 1973. We did a self-guided tour with headphones and found it excellent; we did several such tours throughout our trip through Israel and got a great deal out of them. Allowing you to wander and take it all in at your own pace, these tours allow you to understand at least a bit of what you're looking at; archaeological sites, especially complex ones, can often look like "just another pile of rocks" without a guide or a book!

Next: More Negev adventures: gourmet goat cheese, desert vineyards, and crocodiles!

1 comment:

Cori said...

Those baby goats are so cute! It looks like you had a great trip. I once stumbled upon a gas station/winery that roasted coffee beans in Vermont, so they do exist in the US, too.